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Minneapolis charges dog owner with misdemeanor over off-leash permit

Mark Palmer says taking his buddy, Brutus, to the wrong park on the wrong day had him facing 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Mark Palmer says taking his buddy, Brutus, to the wrong park on the wrong day had him facing 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Mark Palmer

On a Saturday morning in October, Mark Palmer of Minneapolis took his dog, Brutus, to the Minnehaha Off-Leash Dog Park.

Palmer was just clipping Brutus back in and getting ready to leave when a Minneapolis Park Patrol agent approached and asked to see his “off-leash dog permit.”

At first, Palmer misunderstood. He thought the agent meant his pet license, which he had in order, but not on him. Once the agent ran his info, Palmer learned these were two very different certifications. He was about to get a citation.

Palmer says the officer crisply told him that they hadn’t written up a ticket like this in “years,” but they’d recently received a complaint from a resident, and Palmer likely wouldn’t be the only one fined that day.

Off-leash permits cost $35 annually for residents of Minneapolis and $60 for out-of-towners, with another $25 ($35 for non-residents) to add a second dog. One-day permits can be purchased for $5.

Palmer applied for the off-leash permit right away. But it turned out his troubles were just beginning. About a month later, he received notice in the mail that he was required to appear in court.

He was dumbfounded. He couldn't belive he was supposed to take off work, accept taxpayer-funded legal help from the city, and appear before a judge to answer for not having the right paperwork to let his dog run around a designated off-leash park. He started making calls.

Palmer says city employees seemed just as surprised as he was. They agreed there must be some mistake… until they did some digging and found out it was true. Palmer was due in court, but nobody could tell him why he couldn’t just pay a fine and be done with it.

In a moment of desperation, he went to City Hall, and was eventually put in touch with a city attorney. At first, Palmer says, the attorney assumed something was amiss, and promised to look into it.

Later that day he called Palmer back, first telling him not to “freak out.” Palmer learned his violation was actually a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

“It got worse and worse the more people I talked to,” Palmer says.

It was about to get a little better, at least. The attorney was able to help him negotiate his offense down to a petty misdemeanor, which wouldn't require a hearing and lowered his fine to $178. But Palmer was livid, and took his case to Facebook.

“I question the law itself, but I denounce the legal process attached to it,” he wrote. “I used to think the thousands of dollars I pay in property an income tax were being put to at least an explainable use, but unfortunately the city has done everything they could to show me that was a foolish thought.”

“Thank God they’re finally getting people like you into court," one reader quipped. "You’re out of control Mark.”

The reasons for why any of this happened to Pamer are a little nebulous. A spokesperson for the city confirmed the bit of municipal code that governs Palmer's offense, and confirmed with the City Attorney’s Office that violating it requires an appearance in court.

Dawn Sommers, a spokesperson for the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, says although that agency enforces the ordinance, it’s more under the purview of animal control.

Meanwhile, Caroline Hairfield, director of Minneapolis Animal Care & Control, said in a statement that it was under the jurisdiction of the Park Board.

Neither could quite say why Palmer's offense rose to the level of a misdemeanor, though both explained why such ordinances exist.

Sommers says it’s important to have dogs properly vaccinated against rabies before they’re allowed to interact without leashes. If some kind of a scuffle occurs, she says, the last thing they want is for someone to get sick. (Palmer says he has Brutus up to date on all his shots, and the dog tags to prove it.)

Meanwhile, Hairfield said that they exist to help offset the cost of caring for and maintaining the city's seven off-leash dog parks.

“The other option is to not have the convenience of a dog park and open the park to all residents, which would require leashing,” the statement said.

Palmer thinks he's actually lucky. Other people issued a citation that day may not have had the time or the resources to leverage a better outcome.

“Please use our taxpayer dollars for more pressing matters, such as violent crimes, education, and homeless citizens,” he wrote on Facebook, “Not dragging dog park-goers through a multi-month legal process that will help NO ONE.”